Archive for July, 2018

Frank Trentmann: Empire of Things

July 28, 2018

41dDMxF43uL._AC_US218_I have to say that, whilst this book made very interesting reading, it was also quite hard going, partly because of the vast wealth of detail and examples Trentmann uses, and also because the subject is so all-encompassing it meant that it was often hard to follow a particular thread clearly and coherently: the whole felt a little shapeless at times. But our obsession with stuff, and acquiring more and more of it, is a rather more complex issue than I had imagined. In early modern times there had been various sumptuary laws restricting conspicuous consumption on religious and moral grounds.

Trentmann notes a post-Second World War shift to a focus on creating wants, as he looks at what we prize and value, and why that should be. Over centuries we have moved from producing what we need – self-sufficiency and survival – to selling our labour for cash in order to buy things, and this clearly led to the development and manipulation of demand. The shift from rural to urban living was responsible for creating the ambience for higher consumption by reducing opportunities for self-provisioning. Ownership and consumption of stuff gradually became part of how people defined and saw themselves.

Quite early on I felt any reference to Marx’ analysis of labour and production was lacking, and when Trentmann did turn to Marx he was rather simplistic, dismissive even, in his treatment, though it is true that the latter was – as far as he got – more interested in production than consumption; nevertheless Marx’ analysis of changing labour relations over time fits in well with the development of greater consumption, and capitalism in general, I think.

Far more data is available from the nineteenth century onwards, with the growth of the ‘science’ of economics, so the book largely concentrated on the time from then, rather than comprehending the last five centuries as the book’s blurb suggests. However, Trentmann’s debunking of various myths about consumption, and his tracing of a process which can be seen to have developed slowly over centuries, is interesting. For instance, labour-saving devices actually led to the invention of new chores, and the adopting of higher standards and expectations as people became more competitive. And then there are the tricks and deceits of multinationals involved in the marketing of ‘heritage’ through so-called ‘farmers’ markets’ and ‘local’ food – yet another pricey brand, in the end. In the end, it is all about re-cycling money: higher wages and more leisure time = more goods can be sold, whatever they are; now, the opportunity for profit is even greater as the emphasis on selling services rather than goods, develops.

Home ownership led to the idea of individual rooms, either for specific activities or individuals, and thence the need for things to fill them. Increasingly, statistics demonstrate that the affluent society is about ordinary rather than conspicuous consumption. Concomitant is the necessary growth of consumer debt to sustain it all, and also the growth of public squalor as private affluence increases, and we are told that we prefer to have more of our ‘own’ money to spend on things…

More insidious is the position of the intellectual elite’s self-proclaimed position as guardians of ‘civilisation’, attacking mass consumption and seeing the masses themselves as spoilt children, permanent adolescents caught up in the cult of self.

Why do people imagine they need all this stuff? Perhaps to make up for the increasing dullness and pressure of the routine of work? In the end, self-fulfilment through stuff… Consumption itself takes time as well as money, contributing to the feelings of stress, so we are time-poor but have lots of things instead. Pope John Paul II spoke eloquently about the loss of balance between spiritual and material values.

Most interesting to me: Trautmann’s analysis of how and why Eastern Europe failed in terms of satisfying its consumers. Overall, not a book I’d recommend as a casual read; I’m glad I bought it and read it but felt it lacked political bite: issues are presented, but no solutions offered. And clearly we cannot go on like this.

Note to editors: mid-Atlantic production values for books can lead to nonsense: what on earth is ‘Scottish whiskey’ (sic) for heaven’s sake?

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The Red Atlas

July 28, 2018

61SEUp0waVL._AC_US218_For anyone who, like me, is fascinated by maps and atlases, and cartography in general, this book is utterly fascinating. In short, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the full extent of its in-depth cartography has been revealed: astonishingly detailed maps of many countries, often with far more detail than official maps made by those countries themselves. Maps are often very large-scale, with specific buildings labelled, width and construction of roads, railways and bridges noted, and lots more. All of this in a well-produced volume, copiously illustrated with examples, and a carefully-written text analysing the history and development of Soviet cartography.

Much of the mapping was highly secret and reserved for military use only; bowdlerised versions of maps of the Soviet Union itself were made available for civilian use where necessary. This is no surprise: all countries do this, including the UK, whose official Ordnance Survey maps have blank spaces where strategic military assets are located, as proved by comparison with Soviet mapping in this very book. It’s the extent, the detail that astonishes about the Soviet enterprise.

This huge enterprise got me thinking, and my conclusion is surely blindingly obvious: the Cyrillic alphabet. Think about it. When the Nazis invaded Poland – to take one example – they used Polish maps from the country’s Army Geographical Institute, often overprinted in German with the legend ‘only for service use’. And that’s all they needed to do, for whatever country they invaded, except the Soviet Union. For if a map and its legend is in the Roman alphabet, then the place names are instantly legible, and all you need is a translation of the legend.

This doesn’t work if you’re a Russian: all those maps, all those place names are in an alien alphabet; if you tried to overprint everything on a Western map, you’d have an illegible piece of paper. So you start from scratch, using all available Western maps and your spy network and aerial and satellite photography and you re-create all those maps, in the Cyrillic alphabet, with names phonetically transliterated so that your one day invading or occupying troops know where they are… a colossal enterprise but achievable with the resources of the state behind it. And you do it properly, thoroughly. Surely the US military have done something similar with mapping of Russia.

A wonderful book. And perhaps I got rather more from looking at the gorgeous maps than the average Western reader in that, although I cannot understand Russian, I can ‘read’ i.e. transliterate it.

William McGonagall: The Tay Bridge Disaster

July 27, 2018
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

You may have heard of the nineteenth century Scots poet William McGonagall, the one often described as the worst poet ever, the man whose public performances were packed by people who went to laugh at him and his poetry. His is truly a very sad story, although he does seem to have been largely oblivious to what really went on…

But remembering him set me thinking about good and bad poetry

When I was first teaching, practical criticism was a full two-year course, preparation for a single unseen paper at A level, where the student would meet two texts, one poetry and one prose, and would have to write an analytical and appreciative essay on each. Only once was a text set that I’d used with some of my students a couple of years previously.

So preparation for this paper involved exploring poetry and prose from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, looking at language, poetic techniques, styles, form and structure; it involved learning how correctly to use the language of literary criticism and how to express opinions; it involved learning to evidence one’s analysis and response. Not easy, but interesting, and two years was a decent length of time for a student to become as proficient as they were going to be.

I came to use McGonagall’s famous poem as one of my final pieces of practice with my students. By then, I would give them a text, and ask them to read it to themselves, and to think about and jot down brief notes on particular aspects, preparatory to beginning discussion. After ten minutes or so, we would be ready to begin work together. Usually, a student would be asked to read the text aloud. There were times when students would tie themselves in knots trying to say positive things about the poem, taking things like rhyme, rhythm and metre seriously. (Try it.) How quickly they were able to realise how bad the poem was, was a touchstone of how competent and confident they had become in their analytical abilities. I tried to keep a straight face through all this. I wish I could remember which student it was, who, at the end of the few minutes of silent study looked up and said, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’

So what is wrong with the poem? There are some terrible rhymes – Edinburgh and sorrow, for instance, and some forced rhymes, as in think of a word that will rhyme with x and it will do, forced into the poem anyhow. There is no sense of metre, so that rhyming pairs of lines jar appallingly. There is needless repetition of phrases and lines, perhaps with the hope of a refrain-like effect. The poet strains to covey a sense of tragedy but fails completely, partly because the metre he’s trying to use is a rather jolly one, when he sticks to it for long enough. And then there’s the civil engineering moral tacked onto the end…

I remember, from my time as a school pupil, being told to write a poem. God, how I hated it. I didn’t understand metre, couldn’t get the right number of syllables to a line, got the stresses all in the wrong places, thought it had to rhyme. It was a peculiar form of torment, which I tried very hard to mitigate when I was teaching (see here). I firmly believe that the starting point of a poem is inspiration of some kind – which you either have or don’t – the ideas or sensations produce the words and images, which are then either worked over, tweaked and improved or not, and then offered to readers or not. A good poet, and a good poem, can make me see something I’ve never seen before, or look at something in a way I’ve never thought of, for a (brief) moment taking me away from myself and my pedestrian reality.

Choices, ageing, regrets…with poems

July 26, 2018

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,

labuntur anni, nec pietas moram

rugis et instanti senectae

adferet indomitaeque morti;

Looking back nearly half a century I can see why I loved Horace at school. Even as a school student I found I could tune in to the rhythm of his verse, as well as the images he conjured up of the Roman countryside, food and wine, so very atmospheric. And at the ripe old age of 17, though I couldn’t really have known anything about the subject, l loved this poem of his about ageing and its inevitability: the years slip by and there’s nothing you can do about it; wrinkles and death will arrive, no matter how good you have been… now I really know that. And if there’s nothing to be done, then I have to accept and come to terms with it. Which took me on to this poem by Robert Frost:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The first twelve lines are a single sentence that flows slowly, deliberately, creating a sense of thoughtful reflectiveness, partly through the poet’s use of enjambment which allows his ideas to run on; then the single exclamatory line which follows brings him up short, with the impossible idea that he can always go back and start again… the entire third stanza is his reverie interrupted, and he then re-joins it in the final stanza, where he acknowledges the finality of that original choice.

Notice also Frost’s use of the first personal pronoun, which occurs quite regularly through the poem, reminding us of the personal nature of the choice, and the effect of the hiatus in the final stanza, where ‘I’ is repeated, perhaps anchoring the poet’s responsibility for that choice. A certain feeling of wistfulness – or is it nostalgia? – is created by the exclamatory ‘Oh’, and the word ‘sigh’ in the opening line of the final stanza, carefully placed to balance the ‘I’ at the start of that line and to rhyme with the ‘I’ ending the line two lines further on.

Choices. We make them all the time, little ones and big ones, ones we understand and ones we can’t know the significance of, at least until much later on. At the actual moment of choice, Frost observes, there may seem very little in it: ‘really about the same’.

There’s also the matter of impulse for Frost, the idea of certain choices as leaps in the dark: having considered one option carefully for almost the length of the first stanza, he leaps at the other possibility in a single line. The idea of paths you cannot return along is quite haunting in a way, too, almost as if those turnings on life’s map are erased once you have passed them by.

It’s almost impossible not to apply this poem to one’s own life: it’s a poem with a particular meaning for Frost, but which, once out there in the public domain, becomes almost the property of every reader. I often reflect on my younger years and the choices I made way back when, which helped turn me into the person I am today, whether I like him or it or not. Inevitably such thoughts also which lead me to Edith Piaf’s famous song, Je ne regrette rien. If I regret my past choices, am I not also regretting what I am today, given that those choices helped shape me? I think that depends on how happy or satisfied or content I feel with my life, my achievements and my current self…

I made life-changing choices at school: studied English, not History; studied French and English and not French and Latin at university, chose to be an English and not a French teacher. Long ago now, I chose to leave a relationship which meant a lot to me at the time but which I could then see would not give me what I most wanted in my future. Once made, as Frost acknowledges, fairly soon those choices could not be unmade: ‘way leads on to way’ and one is somewhere and someone else before one realises it…

I’ve mentioned some of the choices I’m aware of having made. Then there are also choices I didn’t have, such as – for instance – to not have had a very religious upbringing. But if I hadn’t, who would I be today? And finally there are choices I didn’t know I’d made, the most obvious example of which was not getting on a plane one day when I was much younger and flying somewhere, so that I’ve ended up today with what’s either a phobia or a total unwillingness, meaning there are a lot of places I’d really like to visit that I’m never going to see…

For me, neither Horace nor Frost have said anything I didn’t already know: what they have done – and here is another skill of a true poet, it seems to me – is to put something I already knew into words I could not, and thereby made me stop and reflect more deeply on those things. My truth was mine: they capture the eternal as well.

Rupert Brooke: These I have loved

July 25, 2018

These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such —
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns. . . .
Dear names,
And thousand other throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing;
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass; —
All these have been my loves.

 

A moment of epiphany here, as I looked for the text of this poem I’ve liked for years, to use in this post. It’s actually part of a longer work… and I never knew! However, this is the part I have known and used, and which I shall focus on. I don’t know where I came across it first, although it was long ago, at the start of my teaching career, and I always used it as a way in to offering my students the possibility of trying to write poetry. This was always a very fraught task, if you think about it, poetry being so personal as well as something many students seem to have an automatic aversion to; I also had grave reservations about trying to ‘teach’ students to write poetry anyway…

But, Brooke’s poem offers a way in. In this part of his poem, he focuses on many, totally unconnected things which have given him fleeting moments of sensory pleasure; we all have these, and it was relatively easy for students to understand what Brooke was on about; even if his particular pleasures left them cold, they could name plenty of their own, and were usually ready to. Then, invited to focus more deliberately on each of their five senses and make lists of them, it was a straightforward enough step for most to see how that exercise could lead them into a similar poem of their own; prodding them to think carefully about exactly the right words they needed to characterise their particular pleasure came next… I was regularly very surprised and pleased by the number of good poems they produced, imitative or not. And there was a box ticked (if I needed to tick one) as well as a classroom display for a while.

Brooke’s poem works quite simply, it seems to me: it’s a list – the final line of the section I’ve quoted makes that clear – there are items that pleasurably stimulate each of his five senses, randomly thrown together (?) or perhaps linked by some association in Brooke’s mind. Each item is briefly listed, characterised in a few words, and then Brooke is on to the next one, so there is a democracy of sorts here: no one sensation is prioritised, better than others. And the impressions are fleeting: this I feel is most important, as we understand that oh so brief buzz of pleasure from one of the little things that momentarily please us. The skill (the art?) is in the choice of words to describe each sensation: the strong crust of friendly bread, the cool kindliness of sheets, the cold graveness of iron… and I remember that the better poems my students produced also managed to find just the right words to convey their sensations.

It’s not a stunning poem, but it’s a good one, one I have never forgotten, and one that does a thing that a good poet always does: make me look at something in a new way, one that I wouldn’t have found for myself (because I’m not a poet).

My travels: H is for Hadrian’s Wall

July 20, 2018

I studied Latin and Roman history at school; I almost ended up reading Classics at university. But that was in another existence. However, I’m still fascinated by them both, and took a week’s holiday in Northumbria to visit the Hadrian’s Wall sites properly.

There are a lot of ruins, mainly of military camps used by the Romans to control and pacify the country, and one ruined camp is very similar to another, although different buildings remain in differing degrees of ruin. And there are stretches of wall: sometimes it’s almost buried under turf, sometimes it’s almost at full height and width in short stretches; occasionally you can actually walk along the top of it and imagine the legionaries…

I’ve learned that Romans didn’t recycle building materials when they rebuilt; they just levelled and started again on top. Early Christians did, however, and the crypt of Hexham Abbey is made of recycled stone from nearby Corbridge (Corostipitum) – you can see the decorative marks in the stonework randomly in the crypt walls. I learnt that the troops worshipped all sorts of different gods, and saw a wonderful little temple to Mithras in the middle of a field of sheep. I also discovered that vast areas are still awaiting the eventual attentions of archaeologists, and that so much about what went on at the ‘limes’ (frontier) is still to be revealed.

Vindolanda was particularly impressive, partly because it’s a very active site archaeologically, and the excavators will talk to you about what they’re doing. Also, it has a truly stunning museum stuffed with artifacts that have been preserved in oxygen-free conditions since the Romans threw them away or lost them: shoes and sandals, tents, wooden pots with lids, a toilet seat…

I find it astonishing that so much remains from 2000 years ago, and also that the Romans managed to conquer and rule an empire that lasted far longer than our more recent British, Soviet or American empires, and that it was common for troops and commanders to be posted from one end of the empire to another – from Syria to Britannia, for instance. People able to move all over Europe, wherever work and duty took them, often taking their families with them, and settling in a new place: now what does that remind you of, dear reader?

I have to add that the countryside around here, even forgetting the Wall for an instant, is pretty stunning, and having done quite a few different walks along and around various sections of the Wall, I’m coming to the conclusion that, although they may have been shut out from the joys of Roman civilisation, the barbarians enjoyed the best views.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m currently reading a history of consumption – not tuberculosis but our obsession with buying stuff; some of the objects and artifacts I’ve seen on display at various sites have got me thinking about our relationships with desirable objects, which clearly goes back a long way…

Thoughts of a somewhat reluctant teacher

July 11, 2018

As I grow older, anniversaries become ever more lapidary; this afternoon I realised with a shock that it was 40 years since I gained my PGCE. It was always going to be teaching or journalism; I can still recall the careers’ advisor’s face after she had tentatively suggested advertising and I’d told her all advertising was immoral… and teaching seemed like a more secure prospect than journalism.

Training at the long-gone or renamed CF Mott College at Prescott on Merseyside was interesting: I really enjoyed the theoretical side of teaching and the child development and psychology, found the English tutor’s input unbelievably dull and patronising, and my French was rather better than the French tutor’s, so I was mercifully spared the sessions in the language laboratory (some of my readers may need to look that up). One of my training schools was on three sites in Everton; after I’d finished five weeks of teaching a year seven class French – or attempting to – I was taken aback when a girl came up to me and asked, in the broadest of scouse accents, “Sir, can you speak French? Say something in French to me…’ My main training school had separate-gender staff-rooms (!) and, after I’d asked an awkward year ten boy to step outside the classroom temporarily and gone back a few minutes later to find him gone, to be told at break by the deputy head, ‘I took that boy off and thrashed him for you!’ I vowed not to do that again. When it was suggested I apply for a post at one of the top private schools in Cambridge, I realised I wasn’t ready for this lark just yet. I was still a hippy, and instead went off to do an MA and then an MPhil, which I enjoyed immensely.

It was nearly five years later, in the darkest days of Thatcherism, after I’d had enough of living on benefits, that I decided to cash in on my qualification and work as a supply teacher. Having taken on board the interviewer’s suggestion that ironing my shirts would be a good idea (!) I did my probationary year as a supply teacher in Hackney, breaking up more fights than I ever had to do afterwards, and scotching a year eleven boy’s attempt to burn down the classroom by throwing lighted matches into lockers… The money was good, and a year and five schools later, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Boys’ School head-hunted me from ILEA’s lists as an English teacher, and I never looked back, spending a year and a half there under an inspirational Head of English.

What changed? I realised I could communicate my subject – after this time as an English teacher, my French never got a look in again – and my love for it, pretty effectively, and that speaking and listening was an aspect I was particularly strong in, as well as its being one which was only just coming to the fore in terms of both classroom and examination. I also realised that I worked far more effectively with brighter and more able students, and so that’s the track my career followed. I liked the edginess of the classroom, and the liveliness of discussion that was possible once the right boundaries had been agreed. Nothing was off-limits.

Having re-located to Yorkshire, I enjoyed six stimulating years at Harrogate Grammar School, under another wonderful Head of Department who allowed me to work to my strengths, and then went off to Ripon Grammar to run the English Department there for the rest of my career. And now I’m history: as of last summer, there were no students at the school who would have been taught by me…

So I was a reluctant teacher in some ways, and perhaps coming to the profession in my late rather than my early twenties made things easier, particularly in terms of establishing the right kind of distance between me and my students. I’d also had time to do a counselling training course, which was invaluable in so many situations throughout my career when dealing with difficult situations and students in need of advice and support.

I do have a lot of happy memories, of many students and teaching colleagues, some of whom I’m still in touch with. As a career it was a tough and demanding one – I have no patience with anyone whose opening gambit is along the lines of ‘oh, all those holidays!’ – but a very satisfying one, because of having played a part in shaping future generations, and sharing my love of my subject. I wouldn’t have done anything else: I made the right choice all those years ago.

Ulugh Beg and historical fiction (again)

July 8, 2018

51kf4K3tuJL._AC_US160_This is the novel that prompted my reflections on historical fiction a few days ago; I’ve now finished reading it, and I quite enjoyed it, but I’m still not quite there with my approach to historical novels. There is no plot! And then, I realised, that if you’re writing a novel, almost completely peopled by real characters who actually lived, and the places they lived and worked, and their times, then there can’t really be a plot in the way we usually understand it unless a novelist is going to play fast and loose with the truth… there’s a whole can of worms here!

What I enjoyed about Luminet’s book – I hesitate to call it a novel, though he does, in a brief post-face – is the fleshing out of the historical facts about the world of Arab science in the time of the early Renaissance. There is local colour, description of places, characters and events are sketched out. But only sketched, never really developing beyond outlines, and never really feeling like fully developed characters, again because to do so would be to invent and superpose on a historical truth which we can never know, because we don’t have those facts to go with the real people. I’m interested in the Middle East, the past of those countries, their achievements, Islam as a religion and the ways it resembles and does not resemble the Christianity of our world.

But the lack of a plot is a real issue. We don’t even get a clear and logical explanation of the progress of Arab science at this time, and the book is populated by a wide range of characters who we lose track of, and need to remind ourselves about from time to time using the helpful index of persons, rather like the huge lists at the start of various lapidary Russian novels. Nothing unifies the text other than the idea of science, which can’t really sustain a novel.

The times, in the wake of Tamburlane and Genghiz Khan and various other empire-building characters, were chaotic, with all sorts of princelings jostling for power and advantage; there was also religious fundamentalism which Luminet explores, of the same kind that was to hamper the researches of Galileo in the Christian West; in short, not times conducive to unhampered and free scientific work. And if one of the key scientists is also meant to be the emperor and neglects the empire, then things will quickly unravel. No difference between the Islamic and Christian world, then.

Although I’m glad I read the book, I can’t see it’s one I’ll go back to, because of its deficiencies. But I will dig out again a history of Islamic science I read a few years ago…

On the NHS

July 5, 2018

I try to avoid political posts, as I’m of an age where the state of our country and the world makes me want to rant. Today, however, is quite a special day for us British, and I want to pay tribute to an institution which I have been fortunate enough to be able to take for granted for my entire life.

My mother trained as a nurse and worked for the NHS right at its very beginning; one of my sisters is currently a children’s nurse in a specialised burns unit. The NHS isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s there. It doesn’t look after my eyesight, and I’ve chosen not to let it look after my teeth. But it did wonders for my deteriorating hearing in the final years of my teaching career, and it has helped me carry on walking normally with my wonky feet. So far I’ve never needed treatment in A&E, but I know many who have. And, pace any US readers, it’s there, without any need to flash a credit card at the ambulance driver…

The NHS may exemplify the nanny state; if so, I’m all for it. If I am to have any loyalty to a state, to which I constantly pay taxes, I’d like to feel it’s looking after me in return. And there are precious few things I can feel proud of in my country today. I feel much safer with the NHS behind me than I do with all the ridiculous amounts of money wasted on weapons and armaments.

People complain that the NHS wastes money; I’m sure it does, but no more than any other branch of government – we just rarely get to hear about how much the Ministry of Defence wastes, or the Department for Education: what the NHS does is visible to everyone.

I like the idea that the NHS sprang from the idea that one of the basic necessities of life, decent healthcare, should be equally available to everyone, without anyone having to worry about the upfront cost. To me, there are quite a few other necessities that deserve a similar approach, but I won’t go into that at the moment. I said earlier that I take the NHS for granted; so do we all, I think. And it needs to be paid for, and I, for one, don’t resent what I have paid towards it. People are living longer – and I hope to be one of those – and have expectations about more complex levels of treatment than used to be available: we need to accept that all this needs to be paid for, and agree to it. If taxes need to rise, so be it.

When people talk about the nanny state and the way it ‘interferes’ in our lives, I find myself thinking that actually rather more nanny state might be a good idea in some ways: if the government is looking after us, why isn’t it being more active in regulating the junk that is sold as food and drink, and which contributes so considerably to health problems for so many? Then the NHS would have more money to spend treating unavoidable illnesses…

But I was going to try and be non-political today. I was political here, if you want politics.

So, thank you to the NHS for taking out my tonsils, for providing rose-hip syrup, orange juice and revolting cold-liver oil to build me up as a child, for the scary visits to what we called the ‘prick shop’ for our childhood jabs; for all the GP visits, blood tests, heart investigations, checking my poo for bowel cancer, and I don’t know what else. Without presenting me with a bill at the cash-desk. An organisation I have always felt proud of.

On historical novels

July 2, 2018

What, exactly, is a historical novel? I realise that I’ve probably been quite snooty about them at various times in the past, and dismissive of the genre, as not being ‘proper’ literature. But recently I’ve been thinking, particularly as I suspect I’ve been reading and enjoying them without realising…

What I mean is, does any novel set in the past count as a historical novel? Does it depend on how historical personalities and events are integrated imaginatively into the plot? And what, if anything, makes one of these novels count as ‘proper’ literature? I’m not interested in novels populated by kings and queens, aristocrats and royalty, for instance, and I didn’t choose to read Hilary Mantel’s recent novels set at the time of the English Reformation. But that is a historical period I’m interested in, and the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar I reviewed recently was set then, and certainly involved some real persons from those times, as was the case with Luther Blissett’s Q, which I also drew attention to in that same post.

I found myself questioning my attitude because of a novel I’m currently reading, set in the Middle East and Central Asia at the time of Tamburlane, but centring on a number of Arab scientists rediscovering the knowledge of the ancients, as well as pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge. And Jean-Pierre Luminet’s Ulugh Beg isn’t that good: almost non-existent characterisation, and tenuous plot that seems to exist just to flesh out the history of Arab science. I was reminded of John Banville’s novels featuring scientists from history; I tried the one about Copernicus but was so annoyed I gave up. On the other hand, Gilbert Sinoué’s novel about Avicenna I found thoughtful, detailed, interesting and quite moving at times; I got a real picture of people, places and science of the times he was writing about.

Back to my question: is War and Peace a historical novel? Yes, obviously, and so much more. There are real people from history in that novel just as there are, for example, in Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, or Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; all three of those novels go into my – for want of a better word – ‘proper’ literature category.

So I find myself wondering about proportion. You can have a story set in a particular historical context, but with fictional characters; a great deal of care will ensure its plausibility. If you don’t try and weave in too many real characters and events, a reader will suspend disbelief sufficiently for the story to have the author’s desired impact; too many historical characters, as in Luminet’s novel, and I may as well be reading a history book. Thus, for example, Rybakov uses a few carefully crafted and plausible scenes involving Stalin and some of his henchmen, but most of his story involves imagined characters plausibly deployed in accurate background which accommodates them without challenging the reader’s response or credulity too much. With too many historical characters, we perhaps begins to feel more as if a writer is developing a fantasy involving real people and we start to think, would Tamburlane really have spoken/ acted like that? The sense of proportion is wrong and the reader is jolted into noticing that something here isn’t quite right… our credulity is over-stretched.

The imaginative effort also counts for something here, both on the part of reader and writer, I feel. I’m rarely reading a historical novel to escape into the past, I’m reading because I hope the writer’s imagination will be powerful enough in her/ his creation to develop my understanding of a particular time and place in history, to flesh out what I’d have got from a textbook, in the same way that, for instance, a poem by Wilfred Owen develops my understanding of the experience of the Great War.

I’d be very interested in any thoughts on this topic from you, dear readers: it’s quite a new area of reflection for yours truly…

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